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Review: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

This tops many outlets “Best of 2016” lists, and is often compared favorably with super-musical Hamilton in terms of innovation and sheer vivacity. What do I think of it? Well, similar to the way I feel about Hamilton, I at least really enjoyed it about as much as everyone else. As for innovation, well, this sort of thing has been done a lot before, especially in the 1970s, though I can’t deny the dexterity of execution here far exceeds anything I’m aware of in this vein.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is composer / writer Dave Malloy’s inspired, stylistically eclectic musical adaptation of a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of Russia under attack from Napoleon, War and Peace (some of the spicier and more romantic pages of the novel, it should be said). Director Rachel Chavkin has staged Malloy’s pluckily intellectual creation in a style that in the 1970s was called “environmental,” and today goes by the moniker of “immersive.”

Having worked on immersive productions myself, I’m not taken so much by the idea of Chavkin’s immersive staging – it’s just one of many ways this material could have been staged. What I am taken by is the breathtaking skill and creativity with which Chavkin has applied it.

Here’s one example that stands out for me: our hero Pierre visits a club. For this scene, a 1812 Moscow aristocratic private club is portrayed as S&M night at a 1990s mega-club. It’s a fun idea, but also a really dumb and corny one. Granted that things could get pretty wild at the 1812 club, what with the epic consumption of vodka, but it’s still really apples and oranges.

However, Chavkin, lighting designer Bradley King and choreographer Sam Pinkleton attack the sequence with such precision and energy that the sheer visceral impact is undeniable, even overwhelming, especially in this immersive context. Chavkin and her team bring this combination of smarts and virtuosity to every scene. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

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‘Tis the season – time for drag queens to work a holiday theme to buy Mama a new pair of shoes! There’s a joke in Jinkx Monsoon’s current Xmas show that makes that explicit – “Why do we put ourselves through doing holiday shows? For the paycheck!!!” This particular show also features her musical counterpart, pianist/composer/raconteur Major Scales, and is called Christmas Mourning, mostly in response to the election.

Their biggest hit, The Vaudevillians, was a real stunner, a thoroughly thought-out evening of cabaret theatre, which successfully staked their claim to be regarded as major players in the worlds of both high drag and cabaret. This show is almost as structured – which is very unusual for holiday drag shows. Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition, which is why they’re capable of producing a holiday drag show that’s nearly as high concept as The Vaudevillians.

They share traumatic Christmas stories, sing a Lana Del Rey song with “exactly as much effort as she herself puts into performing it” and give Mariah Carey the bird. They even sing a couple of strong original songs. One cheekily pays tribute to being gender-fluid. The other (a solo for Scales) pictures a passive-agressive dinner with Trump-voting relatives.

Christmas Mourning is light years more thoughtful than your typical holiday drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. It’s somewhat similar to Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s holiday shows – very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface. Don’t miss it!

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

News: Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo…

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Steven Brinberg is the premier Barbra Streisand impressionist, who has taken his act, “Simply Barbra”, to international acclaim both on stage and television (performing on several occasions with none other than Streisand buddy Marvin Hamlisch) paying homage to all that is Streisand. Steven does not lip-sync but does a stunningly accurate singing impressionism of Streisand.

Steven will be doing Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo… at Feinstein’s / 54 Below this Sunday, December 18. It’s an evening of holiday tunes, Streisand classics and glimpses of other divas from Cher to Bea Arthur. All performed live, no lip synching. Look for a special guest star to join Barbra to help ring in the holidays – and sing some famous Christmas songs written by Jewish composers.

Steven Brinberg has been acclaimed for his vocal performance of Barbra Streisand for over a decade around the world. In addition to touring all over America he has also played extensively in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Thailand, Spain, Mexico and Canada…more cities then the real Barbra! Steven was hired by Streisand’s management to perform at her friend Donna Karan’s birthday party.

The show contains songs from both The Christmas Album – “probably more from that one,” Steven notes, and Christmas Memories. “It’s funny,” says Steven, “I change the show constantly especially the talking. At one point, I referred to James Brolin as a famous B movie and TV actor, at another point I took the B out. The challenge in keeping the shows fresh after so many years is helped by Barbra still being such a presence. Keeps it current. And I’m always free to sing songs she has never done, as I know exactly how she might do them down to the last breath. I had been singing ‘Make Someone Happy’ in the show years before she recorded it. And the end result when she did it was pretty close. I was surprised though that she changed her phrasing on the lyric from ‘Love is the ansuh’ to ‘Love is the anserrr’ perhaps to plug the title of the album!”

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Booth Theatre Written by Christopher Hampton; Based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos; Original Music: Michael Bruce Directed by Josie Rourke Scenic Design by Tom Scutt; Costume Design by Tom Scutt; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Carolyn Downing; Hair Design by Campbell Young; Make-Up Design by Campbell Young Janet McTeer La Marquise de Merteuil Liev Schreiber Le Vicomte de Valmont Elena Kampouris Broadway debutCécile Volanges Mary Beth Peil Madame de Rosemonde Birgitte Hjort Sørensen Broadway debut Mme. de Tourval Raffi Barsoumian Broadway debut Le Chevalier Danceny Katrina Cunningham Émilie a courtesan Joy Franz Victoire Ora Jones Madame de Volanges David Patterson Broadway debut Major-domo Josh Salt Azolan Valmont's valet de chambre Laura Sudduth Broadway debut Julie Understudies: Katrina Cunningham (Cécile Volanges), Rachel deBenedet (La Marquise de Merteuil), Joy Franz (Madame de Rosemonde), Ron Menzel (Le Vicomte de Valmont, Major-domo), David Patterson (Azolan, Le Chevalier Danceny) and Laura Sudduth (Mme. de Tourval, Victoire, Émil

It’s a little different seeing Les Liaisons Dangereuses in these days of heightened awareness of the prevalence of sexual assaults on women. Our new pussy-grabber-in-cheif makes the exploits of the rapacious Vicomte de Valmont stand out even more starkly. Valmont may claim that his assaults are intentionally resistible so that woman can’t claim he forced them. Still, he does indeed grab women – who are saying no – right in the pussy. If in the past the Marquise de Merteuil’s final “war” on Valmont seemed a pass too far, it seems all too justifiable now.

As Valmont, Liev Schreiber cleverly calibrates all of this, shading his interpretation with the sense that he is more a slave of his appetites than their master. He is possibly the sexiest man ever to play Valmont, with a brooding virility that helps explain this decadent man’s appeal. Schreiber is better known for playing more macho sorts, but proves more than capable of playing – with great intelligence and sophistication at that – a dissolute, even melancholy 18th Century French aristocrat.

Former lovers, Merteuil and Valmont compete in games of seduction and revenge. And if Schreiber’s Valmont is the louche, lounging sort, then Janer McTeer’s Merteuil is the very picture of elegant yet implacable ferocity. Her consonants rustle, her vowels throb. Her hands and fingers flutter with the lethal precision of daggers. The exterior is calculating and cool, but seething lava boils underneath. It’s one hell of a performance, and if McTeer isn’t remembered with a nomination at Tony time, I’m crying foul.

Director Josie Rourke has given these star turns a gorgeous production, all candle-lit chandeliers and the effortless glamour of decay. The pace is languorous without being unbearable, a minor-key pavane of a privileged class on the brink of collapse. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Judy Collins

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No one sings a folk song more beautifully than Judy Collins, and few people sing more beautifully, period. She’s an authentic river of song, in truly golden voice in her seventies. She’ll be talking about a song in passing, and then launch into three or four lines, singing with breathtakingly casual grace and beauty. And then continue with her story “and so I told Leonard Cohen that yes, ‘Suzanne’ is a good song and I’ll be recording it tomorrow…”

In tribute to Cohen’s passing she did a medley of his “Bird on a Wire” with one of he own songs – Cohen had encouraged her as a songwriter, which was life-changing for her. When she sings a song in earnest, she’s truly arresting, imbuing each line with subtle style, implying stories behind stories.

This particular act follows on the release of Silver Skies Blue, an album of duets with Ari Hest, a 37-year-old singer / songwriter. The central part of the act is the two of them together. His songs fit Judy’s voice like a glove, and their voices sound very natural in harmony together. The song of his that stuck with me most is “Aberdeen”, about a young person’s burning ambition to leave the titular South Dakota small town.

The stories Judy tells are truly entertaining, varying from the touchingly personal to the hilariously bawdy. She is so enthusiastically invested in the music – her spectacular, undiminished talent always grants an amaziningly intense cabaret experience. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Heisenberg

Heisenberg MTC Friedman Theatre CAST & CREATIVE for Heisenberg View All Cast Georgie Mary-Louise Parker Alex Denis Arndt Creative Written by Simon Stephens Director Mark Brokaw Set Designer Mark Wendland Costume Designer Michael Krass Lighting Designer Austin R. Smith Original Music and Sound Designer David Van Tieghem

When looking for someone to adapt his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon specifically sought out playwright Simon Stephens because of his “heart of flint.” That captures Stephens’s cool and clear-eyed observation of people with all their flaws, but it misses the underlying optimism in his writing that creates such an exciting tension with his flinty surfaces. His specific brand of guarded optimism was indeed exactly what was needed for Curious Incident, and is once again on surprisingly heartening display in his own play Heisenberg.

In a London train station, Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker) spots Alex (Denis Arndt), a man several decades her senior, and plants a kiss on his neck. Nothing is quite as it seems, either at that moment, or indeed as their relationship grows and changes. Out of unpredictable oscillations between self-interest and selflessness is born something that closely resembles love.

Both Georgie and Alex have massive defense mechanisms due to difficulties in their lives, yet gradually offer each other more and more company and comfort, because…well, why not? Parker can sometimes be abrasive and “too much” as Georgie – but that’s actually because she’s playing the character correctly. Similarly, Arndt can be a bit opaque, but that’s because Alex is opaque.

Stephens very successfully makes us care about two prickly, slippery people by giving us insights to the all-too-human pain that drives them. Mark Brokaw’s spare but very detailed direction serves Stephens’s script marvellously well. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Sharon Needles

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A song about Candy Darling by Lou Reed, and a Rocky Horror song delivered with a dash of Bette Davis and a whole lot of Alice Cooper – these were perhaps the most deliciously telling things about Sharon Needles’s Halloween-themed cabaret act. Needles keeps referring to her shtick as “stupid,” which I chalk up to a knee-jerk – and praise-worthy – punk need to puncture any and all kinds of self-importance. But don’t you believe it: This is one smart poison cookie!

The question I had going into this act was: “how well does this witch sing?” Because, like Bianca Del Rio, I don’t pay much attention to singles and albums released by drag queens. These are people who are meant to be seen live. And the answer? Sharon sings very well indeed, in a glam punk kind of way – the Alice Cooper reference above captures it, with an added dash of Marilyn Manson aggression.

The majority of the songs are from her campy horror albums. On those, the songs are done in a gothy version of the electropop style that is de rigeur for Drag Race graduates (I took a listen after I’d seen the act). Done live with only a piano, their hard rock roots are definitely showing, which makes me very happy. Makes me wonder what they would sound like played balls-to-the-wall Iggy & the Stooges style.

The above-mentioned cover versions are highlights of the evening. To hear the Velvet Undergound’s 1968 classic “Candy Says” sung with great sincerity and emotion by a man in a beautiful wig and dress is quite moving. And Sharon’s hilariously re-lyricized version of “Sweet Transvestite” gives new life to that midnight movie chestnut.

It’s a good thing this act is consistently high quality, cuz it’s a bit of a butt-buster with its nearly hour and a half length. That said, I didn’t really lose patience that whole time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.